Johns Hopkins Gazette: March 17, 1997

Molly Haskell
On Film: "It's
Still A Male
Poker Game"

Mike Field
Staff Writer
Here's what Molly Haskell has to say about Doris Day:

"I had advanced, in public and in print, the novel idea that Doris Day ought to be treated with several degrees more seriousness than has characterized most articles and critiques of this--I think--underrated actress," she wrote in her first article for Ms. magazine, more than 20 years ago. "Not only was I defending her talent, but, more preposterously, her movies-- something not even her best friends would buy."

Doris Day? Hollywood's "frozen virgin" championed by the grande dame of feminist film criticism, the author whose 1974 book, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, is widely credited with bringing women's consciousness to the subject of the movies?

Haskell, it turns out, is hardly interested in making nice, safe, comfortable observations about film, even if it threatens her image as feminist icon. In a telephone interview from her Manhattan apartment, she reserved special scorn for the newest Hollywood incarnation of femaleness, the all-knowing, all-powerful woman.

"It's not just a softening of the sharp edges," she says of the new reluctance on the part of many stars to portray women who are weak. "It's a kind of political correctness where women have to be strong and in-the-know. I think it's a blight in the name of women's rights. Of course, male stars have been doing this kind of thing for years."

Forthright, funny and slightly irascible, Molly Haskell continues to chart her own course as one of the nation's foremost film critics in publications ranging from The Village Voice and New York Magazine to Vogue, Esquire and The New York Times. Her recent book, Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Film and Feminists, is a collection of essays, interviews and articles she has published over the past two decades or so. Many focus on the great screen goddesses of past and present; all are written with a characteristic wit and verve that sets Haskell's work apart in a landscape of thumbs up/thumbs down film criticism.

As part of the ongoing Hopkins celebration of Women's History Month, Haskell will host director Jim McKay's 1996 film, Girls Town, at the Baltimore Museum of Art on March 20. The film, winner of the 1996 Sundance Filmmakers' trophy and special jury prize, tells the story of three high school girls brought together and forced into reflection by the death of a friend.

"This film is representative of the female bonding and girl group pictures that have emerged recently," Haskell says. "There have been male buddy films and male passage films and male sexual awakening films for years, but now we are seeing women in these roles."

Recent movies ranging from Little Women to Waiting to Exhale have used the medium to explore women's friendships and lives apart from the leading man. That marks a notable departure from Hollywood's traditional approach, according to Haskell, who says, "there is a tradition of the Eve Arden-best-friend type in the movies, but always as a side issue. The lead actress may have had these friendships, but the movie was still ultimately about her relationship with the leading man."

Now filmmakers--and, in particular, independent filmmakers-- are more willing to delve into life without a love story to drive the narrative. "I'm particularly interested in movies like this new film from New Zealand, Heavenly Creatures, which follows an intense adolescent friendship that eventually turns pathological," Haskell says. "While these themes and ideas aren't necessarily new, it is new that they are being explored in film."

Has the emergence of a number of notable women film directors led to a flood of new films about women? "I would say it's somewhere between a flood and a trickle," she says. "The independent cinema and, in particular, film festivals like Sundance have encouraged new voices and new perspectives. I think that's a good thing."

But new perspectives, she asserts, have not gone far in changing the underlying culture of power that prevails in Hollywood. "There are a large number of women directors and producers out there," she says, "but the fact is, it's still a male poker game, especially in the major releases. All these huge numbers associated with making a picture. It's this big macho thing: woo, woo, woo! How big is yours?"

What seems to be happening now is a fragmentation of the movie audience along the same sort of lines that led to the fragmentation of radio audiences over the past 10 to 15 years, says Haskell. "There are several cinemas going on now, of which the Hollywood blockbuster syndrome is just one part. Our culture itself is fragmented, and since movies are always eager to give the people what they want, you end up with many different visions, each with its own audience segment."

And while women, traditionally, chose movie fare in adult couples, that tendency has apparently given way to a new era of negotiation. "Hollywood is still chasing the adolescent male, who will line up for certain films' opening weekend and then, if he likes it, go back and see it again, or even multiple times," Haskell says. "This is why you have all these mindless formulaic action pictures and special effects extravaganzas. But for adult films, where it used to be the woman who would dictate where to go on a Saturday night, now there is this trade off, a sort of 'I'll go to the Howard Stern movie if you see Little Women with me' approach."

For Haskell, her appearance at the Baltimore Museum of Art will be a return trip to Hopkins.

"I helped bring Molly Haskell to Hopkins 20 years ago when I was a graduate student in English," says Writing Seminars chairman Mark Crispin Miller, who will introduce Haskell at the March 20 event. "Twenty years ago we were in the era of Clint Eastwood. I'll be interested to see how she thinks we've done from there."

"We're still not at the end of the Clint Eastwood era!" shoots back Haskell, with a laugh. "But I have to say that I think the '70s was the worst for women ever. In the '80s women started to come back, and you had a lot of talented actresses emerging. By the '90s you get Demi Moore making $12 million for a picture, which makes everyone mad as hell, although no one seemed to react that way when the male stars got that kind of money."

Even when women make the big bucks, she suggests, there is a sense of impermanence to their accomplishments. "There are some big box office stars today who happen to be women, but not many," she says. "And their situation is much, much more precarious. Look at Julia Roberts, who was huge, and now is having trouble getting a movie made. Hollywood has always been fickle, but for women especially, there just doesn't seem to be much of a margin for error."

Molly Haskell will present and talk about Girls Town at the Baltimore Museum of Art March 20, at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $5 general admission, $4 for students, seniors and BMA members. For further information call (410)396-6314.

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